Mobile growth healthy in West Africa; cables set to lower bandwidth costs

New market reports for two West African nations – Gambia and Burkina Faso – suggest that both countries have weathered the global financial crisis well. Telecoms and internet offerings are set to improve over the next few years with the advent of new fibre-optic cables.

Gambia's political stability has led to consistent healthy GDP growth which was barely affected by the global economic crisis. The country's telecoms sector features four mobile networks, with a fifth network (Globacom) licensed in July 2010. Gamtel is the sole fixed-line provider. Although the incumbent has a relatively well-developed national backbone network including fibre, fixed-line penetration has remained low, which has also hindered Internet usage.

With only three Internet service providers, the sector is not very competitive. Wireless offerings are competing with Gamtel’s ADSL broadband service. However, for international fibre bandwidth the country depends on neighbouring Senegal which has led to high prices. Gambia's own direct access to new submarine fibre-optic cable systems from 2011 will dramatically lower the cost of international bandwidth.

Mobile market penetration is well above the African average. Gamtel competes in this sector through its subsidiary (Gamcel) against three other operators: the Lebanese-backed Africell and Comium, and Qcell, which is affiliated with one of the country's leading ISPs, QantumNet. QCell introduced 3G mobile services to the country in 2009, including a mobile broadband service.

A new Telecommunications/ICT Bill is expected to create a regulatory environment under which more competition will be introduced to more sectors of the telecommunications market. In view of convergence, the new law will be technology-neutral, which will also liberalise the use of VoIP Internet telephony.

The partial privatisation of Gamtel and Gamcel in 2007 was revoked a year later due to non-performance of the new owners and is likely to be repeated in the near future.

Meanwhile, Burkina Faso’s GDP growth slowed only moderately in 2009 to 3.2%, from where it is expected to rise again steadily to reach more than 6% by 2013.

Fresh investment and new technologies have accelerated the development of the national network infrastructure since Vivendi-owned Maroc Telecom bought a majority stake in the national telco Onatel in 2006. Another 20% of the company was sold in an initial public offering in 2009. Onatel operates the country's fixed-line network, a CDMA2000 wireless network, a fibre optic backbone and one of three GSM mobile networks, Telmob.

Mobile telephony has experienced strong growth since competition was introduced in 2000 by Celtel (now Zain/Bharti) and Telecel International (now Moov) which was owned by Orascom until it was sold to Atlantique Telecom which was then taken over by Etisalat of the UAE. However, market penetration is still well below the African average.

Onatel's FasoNet is the country's leading Internet service provider and also dominates the broadband market with its ADSL and EV-DO offerings. Penetration rates in this sector are still extremely low and services are expensive. Being landlocked, Burkina Faso has traditionally depended on expensive satellite links for its international bandwidth, and more recently on transit fibre links through neighbouring countries which had access to the region’s only international fibre optic submarine cable.

The recent arrival of a second and third international fibre optic submarine cable in Ghana (Glo-1 and Main One) is expected to bring down the cost of international bandwidth further by creating competition with the SAT-3/WASC cable. Several of Burkina Faso’s other neighbouring countries will gain access to a second and in some cases third cable (ACE) in 2011. However, consumers and the country's entire economy will only benefit from lower broadband prices if Onatel passes these cost savings on to them and also to other ISPs on the wholesale level.

The mobile operators have entered the underdeveloped Internet sector by offering mobile data services using GPRS and EDGE technology, but third generation (3G) mobile broadband technology has not yet been introduced except for Onatel's EV-DO fixed-wireless service. In August 2010 an international tender for a new combined fixed and mobile license was launched which will include the provision of 3G mobile services.


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